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Direct Response Selling vs. Storytelling: Which Side Are You On?

As a marketer or entrepreneur, we know that in the end, it doesn’t matter how great your product or service is; if you can’t sell it, you won’t survive. That’s the reason we study marketing and sales. So which side are you on? Direct response selling or Storytelling? 

We’re taught to follow certain rules: some feel good and others don’t. As an entrepreneur in the marketing field, and someone who’s worked in corporate marketing selling someone else’s business, it’s something that I’ve studied and struggled with too. In this article, I’ll break it down for you: the good and the bad of marketing and selling.


There are two divergent philosophies: one based on traditional “direct response” selling, and one based on content or narrative. We’ll put this second one in the category of “storytelling”. There is a whole range of approaches in between these two, which most of us fall into.

Goals of Direct Response Selling vs. Storytelling

The goal of direct response selling is to encourage the prospect to take action. Direct response copywriters are persuasive and relentless about digging deep into the psychological triggers that will induce the customer to take action.

The general flow of the copy is as follows:


Psychological triggers include emotions such as fear, anger, and sorrow, as well as positive feelings such as freedom, happiness, confidence, and success.

The focus of direct response is on buying behavior: specifically, what it would take for someone to make a purchase.

“The person writing the copy needs to have a deep understanding of writing psychology, marketing, sales, and being creative, while writing copy that also resonates with logic, to ensure prospects respond using whatever tactics possible. Copy writing is the bad cop.” — James of Crush Campaigns

In practice, “using whatever tactics possible” usually involves making someone feel fear. We, humans, are driven by fear more than anything else (at least in the short term) and it’s deeply embedded in our DNA, dating back to the caveman era and the instinct to survive. Fortunately, we no longer live in an era where we need to fight for food and flee from animals, but our human conditioning still makes us react that way.

So therein lies the reason copywriters focus on AGITATION. And this is also where this method too easily crosses the line in terms of ethics.

direct response selling

As someone in the marketing profession, I struggled against the tactic of making some feel “less than” in order to persuade them to purchase my services. As I looked into why I felt such resistance to direct response marketing copy, I realized that the human flaw I struggle with most is not feeling worthy or good enough. And now it was my role to make others feel that way through my profession?! It all seemed like quite the joke.

Certainly advertising, in general, is known for using conscious and subconscious messages to make us buy stuff that we don’t need. On the flip side though, direct response selling done with integrity can help the customer to realize the root of their problem and take appropriate action.

When I was introduced to the concept of storytelling, it was difficult to come up with stories (and still is). You’ve got to think in terms of story and see how you can connect this to something relevant and interesting for your customer (and particularly, something that is powerful enough to provoke action). The best stories are just as effective (if not more so) at provoking action as direct response copy. The difference is how the customer feels after he/she makes the purchase.

Then there is the truth and vulnerability aspect of storytelling. You’ve got to share a human flaw about yourself and show them how you overcame it. This is the hardest part for most of us.

While copywriting is the bad cop, storytelling (also known as “content marketing”) is the good cop.

“Think of it as the good cop. Content marketing is nice, worded in a way [that doesn’t] offend or provoke (usually), used to help brand a business or inform prospects in a non-sales kind of way.” — James of Crush Campaigns

Storytelling is based on moving your audience along a journey they want to experience. It’s indirect, using metaphors and imagery that involve your audience’s senses. They’re moved to action based on higher functioning emotions, such as empathy and compassion.

The general flow is as follows:


The Brain Science

In direct response, we’re triggering the reptilian brain: the fight or flight response. This part of the brain protects us from danger, like the scary animals that preyed upon caveman. However, today we still use it even when we’re not in danger (for example, to keep us safe when walking down a strange street).


In storytelling, the use of metaphors activates the neocortex, the part of the brain that creates an effect called “neural coupling.” Basically, this means that the storyteller and listener experience the same emotions because the story affects both the sensory and motor cortex of both people. The story influences the whole brain: the limbic system where we store emotions and memories, as well as the neocortex from which our higher thought processes and creative thinking come.

What Can Go Wrong?

Often in direct response selling, the writer isn’t well versed enough in the audience’s own experiences. You’ve got to know what gets them excited, what problems they face, what keeps them up in the middle of the night, and what paralyzes them with misery and fear. Instead, writers often focus too much on their own businesses.

The same goes for storytelling. If we don’t put the customer center stage, we risk making ourselves the hero and turning off any potential readers.

The best solution in both instances is to get a better understanding of what the customer is going through.


Many people who attempt direct response copywriting aren’t direct enough. There’s too much narrative. On the storytelling side, many stories aren’t effective because they try to make too many points and don’t stick to one theme. If it’s not focused enough, people will walk away having missed the lesson and point of the story.

The key difference is in the tone: direct response is to the point, no fluff, while storytelling sets the stage, creates access through the plot and climaxes at the pivotal point. The objective of storytelling is not to be direct but to encourage readers to arrive at their own conclusions. The ideas planted throughout the story become seeded into the mind of the customer as if they were their own.

So, which is more effective?

It depends. The type of audience is certainly a factor; for example, if you’re targeting a more sophisticated, evolved consumer, scare tactics most likely won’t work.

On the other hand, if you’re marketing to a mainstream audience — and don’t care too much about the long-term relationship — direct response works by keep things simple. It induces the reader to see and understand their problems and take action.

Timing is another consideration. If you’re at the end of a marketing campaign, and the prospect still hasn’t made a decision, a direct response style of writing would make more sense. If you’re brand building, and introducing yourself to someone, you probably don’t want to hit them with an aggressive sales page. Instead, you want to establish an emotional connection with them through a heartfelt story.

Here’s a chart to break it down:


So what’s your take on this subject? What have you found to be effective and in which situations? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Direct Response Selling vs. Storytelling: Which Side Are You On?
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